by Peg Aloi
From the forthcoming (and, frankly, dreaded by some) remakes of Hocus Pocus and The Craft, to the growing Bind Trump movement turning activists into magic practitioners, to witchy fashions on the runway and video tutorials on witchy make-up, witches are invading social media, movies, TV and all of pop culture now. No question we’ve been here before; there seems to be a witchcraft boom every couple of years. But this time it’s different, and many media outlets are picking up on the pervasiveness of witches and the occulture. Why is this trend more vibrant now than it’s ever been before?
For one thing, we’ve seen some outstanding recent films that have stimulated our taste for witchcraft, and they have, surprisingly perhaps, not been mainstream horror but arthouse masterpieces. Well, okay, not entirely true: The Witch (2015) was marketed as if it was the scariest film since The Exorcist; distributor A24 (a fledgling, growing outfit I have much respect for), and the mainstream reaction nearly caused it to flop at the box office. Audiences expecting scares and gore were baffled by the slow-moving narrative (which ramps up considerably mid-way) and the hard-to-understand English dialect. But critics were of one mind: it was a stunning debut from filmmaker Robert Eggers, layered and terrifying, and wound up on many Ten Best lists at year’s end (including my own).
Then there was Anna Biller’s The Love Witch (2016), a bold, detailed, satirical, artful homage to trashy ‘70s horror, and a brilliant send-up of feminist anger and sexual warfare via love spells, sex magic and pagan rituals. The film was a smash at festivals, and soon word got out and repertory houses were booking it, some in gorgeous 35mm. I’ve noticed plenty of people raving about it on social media, and once discovered, fans get a wee bit obsessed: there are Tumblr and Instagram pages featuring cosplay, original fan art, dolls, make-up and other acts of devotions inspired by Biller’s visionary work.
One of the most popular shows on TV at the moment, American Horror Story, devoted an entire season to witches with Coven. It was one of the more uneven iterations of this creative anthology series, with plot points being introduced but left underexplored, and last minute scripting (proving the show runners, as many of us suspect, are more or less making things up as they go along) responding to celebrity commentary on social media (but hey, we got a nice performance from Stevie Nicks out of it). But one thing the show always excels in is its provocative, sumptuous visuals, and the hype surrounding this season saw widespread sharing of its black and white photography all over social media in anticipation of its premiere. Witches tuned in also, many of us excited about the show’s promised historical characters and exploration of voodoo, Wicca and other magical practices. Despite being a disappointment on some levels, Coven’s aesthetics absolutely informed the explosion of witchy imagery being shared over social media, a trend that continues to expand; feminist web mag The Establishment wrote a very thoughtful piece exploring this phenomenon called “A Brief History of the Tumblr Witch.” A recent occult humanities conference in New York City featured many panels, presentations and exhibits focused on witches. Bust magazine featured the theme “Season of the Witch” on the cover of its October 2017 issue, and new magazines devoted to witchcraft and the occult are cropping up, like Sabat and Luna Luna.Older texts, some witchy, some more generally pagan, continue to titillate us, too: The Craft has its share of fans testing out Goth Nancy looks this Hallowe’en; Practical Magic has many of us yearning for midnight margaritas (a scene not portrayed in the original novel). A prequel to Alice Hoffman’s best-selling novel upon which the film was based has just been published: entitled The Rules of Magic, it explores the lives of the “aunts” in the 1960s, and no doubt movie options are already being discussed. Folk horror, a growing area of study and interest online, hearkens back to pagan fare like The Wicker Man or occult narratives like The Devil Rides Out for stylish expressions of horror that rely less on monsters than on good old fashioned superstition, lore, and things that go bump in the night. Filmmakers like Ben Wheatley excel in this milieu (check out Kill List, Sightseers, A Field in England), and young filmmakers are exploring the occult underpinnings lying just beneath the surface of ordinary peoples’ lives (like Liam Gavin’s debut A Dark Song, a quietly haunting film about two strangers undertaking a long-term magical ritual; a conversation with Gavin and other young UK and Irish horror directors is being featured on Film4).
When will this witchy trend let up? Not anytime soon, as news headlines are featuring the term “witch hunt” being invoked by cowardly men in the wake of accusations against them (Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein and Woody Allen come to mind). As women worldwide begin to amplify their voices and speak, nay, shout about atrocities of inequality and oppression, the figure of the witch, whether she be a wise crone, a wily seductress, a nurturing healer, or a bringer of destruction, will continue to inspire and ignite our cultural conversations.
Peg Aloi is a freelance film & TV critic who also writes for The Arts Fuse, the Orlando Weekly, and Diabolique, among other places. Her blog The Witching Hour appeared on Patheos for several years. She is also a traditional singer, organic gardener, semi-professional baker and practicing witch.